Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2019/ Cellphones are (Almost) Perfect Obsolescence

Cellphones are (Almost) Perfect Obsolescence

I recently biked past a cellphone that was left by the side of the road. I probably ought to have picked it up and tried to return it to its owner, but I didn't. That experience, plus recent bad experiences with the (now-defunct) CDMA network, has gotten me thinking about cellphones.

Cellphones (in particular smartphones) are getting closer to becoming the perfect artifact of capitalism:

Cellphone manufacturers know that cellphones (being small, expensive, and full of valuable data) would ordinarily be excellent targets for thieves. So they are loaded with features to discourage theft. There are phone tracking services, of course, but cellphones also get locked down heavily.

For the most part, I endorse anti-theft measures. However, I also endorse technology reuse, and these anti-theft measures conveniently constrain those. Phones that are explicitly wiped/factory reset can become hand-me-downs, but anybody who tries to donate a phone without going through these hoops is donating a piece of e-waste. So we are depending upon the conscientiousness of donors in order to reuse that tech.

Similarly, phones are sometimes lost. Anti-theft features can make these phones hard to return to their owners, and prohibit the phones from being wiped and reused by somebody else. I vacillate whether it is ethical to reuse and/or resell a lost phone, but the phone manufacturers take away this option.

As far as I can tell, there is no good solution to this problem. Any mechanism that third parties could use to wipe and redistribute lost or discarded phones without the original customer's explicit consent is a mechanism that thieves can and will use to wipe stolen phones (or better yet, hold them for ransom). Maybe there could be ways for refurbishers to be "blessed" by the manufacturers to wipe phones, and maybe those blessings could be revoked by any refurbisher caught trafficking in stolen phones. A scheme like that might work, but I am having troubles seeing why manufacturers would do this; it is a lot of work for them and gives them no additional revenue.

Overall, manufacturers don't want phones to be reused. Ideally, they would sell a non-transferable right to a phone to one customer, and prohibit repair or reuse of that device entirely. Fortunately the market has not (yet) accepted this, so in principle it is still possible to reuse phones. But the manufacturers are moving closer to their goals, and I think one day they might get there.

The manufacturers want cradle-to-grave control of the devices they manufacture, but I am less convinced they want to take on the costs of disassembling and recycling the devices they sell. Maybe they will do this if it is profitable or if regulation forces them to, but otherwise they are perfectly content with an 18-month old smartphone being consigned to an ewaste pile for somebody else to deal with.

(Honestly, I should not be opening my mouth about this. I don't know what I am talking about, and I am too lazy to do my research. My experiences with cellphone refurbishment are extremely limited, so far all I know the manufacturers are good citizens and do all the things I wish they did. But that won't stop me from being cynical, and I see piles of ewaste as justification for that cynicism.)